HOUSE DEMOCRATS will meet today to consider, among other things, modifying the rule that currently prevents any member from serving on the Budget Committee for more than three out of five terms. As currently written, the rule would have the undesirable effect of preventing members from considering two of their most experienced colleagues for election as committee chairman.
No similar restriction applies to other major House committees -- although some of these, such as the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees, retain more effective power over major policy decisions. In fact, the concern of other committee chairmen that the Budget Committee might seriously erode their authority was a major factor in the initial decision to put special limits on committee tenure when Congress set up its budget process a decade ago. A further check requires that the committee's chairman be chosen by vote of all Democratic members without the seniority presumptions that apply to other committees.
Because the Budget Committee does -- or at least should -- have considerable clout in deciding how federal resources are allocated, requiring periodic turnover in its membership is probably a healthy way to make sure that committee members are sensitive to the concerns of different constituencies. But the current rule also prevents a three- term committee member from continuing as, or running for, chairman -- a position requiring much substantive knowledge and equally considerable talents in the arts of leadership and compromise.
Unease with that restriction led the House a few years ago to extend the membership limit from two to three terms to allow the committee's first chairman to continue service. Now many members -- concerned that the rule keeps both the current chairman, Rep. Jim Jones, and senior committee member Leon Panetta from being considered for chairmanship -- are sponsoring an amendment allowing members to run for chairman even if they have already served three committee terms.
Notably, the amendment's sponsors include two prominent committee members, Reps. Les Aspin and George Miller, who would almost surely be major candidates for the chairmanship if Reps. Jones and Panetta were ruled ineligible. Both congressmen, however, urged their colleagues to change the rule because it would "rule out exactly the people we should want to enter the fray -- those with extensive and recent experience with the budget process." With so much at stake in the budget process over the next two years, that seems like wise counsel.